For over 650 years the gladiators of ancient Rome entertained the masses and still fascinate many enthusiasts of history today. Prepare to be amazed and surprised by these facts about the men (and women) who battled in this most notorious form of entertainment!
1) Contrary to popular belief (thanks Hollywood) most gladiators didn’t fight to the death. Most gladiators were celebrities and their managers wanted to obtain as much profit from them as possible.
2) The thumbs down likely signified to give mercy in contrast to a misconception fostered by Hollywood. Historians surmise that a thumbs up meant to kill off an opponent, such as with a stab through the shoulder blades or straight through the heart. Most gladiators only lived to their mid-20s.
3) You may recollect images from popular culture of gladiators fighting wild animals. While this is true, it was actually rare and occurred only in the late Roman period to bring more people into the Coliseum. Historical records even claim that the Coliseum was flooded, and gladiators had to fight crocodiles and sharks!
4) Gladiator fights began as a funeral ritual with wealthy noblemen forcing slaves to fight each other to the death.
5) There were female gladiators (almost all slaves) who often fought each other, but also against men and even dwarfs! Victorious female gladiators were regarded as sex symbols.
6) At first, gladiators were specially selected slaves of people conquered by Rome. As the games increased in popularity free working-class men voluntarily signed up for the fame, money, prizes and cheering crowds.
7) Roman emperors did participate in matches as you might recall from the popular movie, Gladiator. However, they were often staged against inexperienced fighters to win the admiration and love of the people.
8) As celebrities are adored and revered by many today, so too, were some of the gladiators of Ancient Rome. Sculptures and paintings celebrate the triumphant gladiators. Their sweat was even added to perfumes and creams to produce what was believed to be an aphrodisiac.
Hopefully, some of these facts have dispelled certain myths and misconceptions surrounding gladiators while increasing your knowledge of history’s most infamous spectator “sport.”
“Football is controlled violence, but it is violence, which people have loved to watch since the gladiatorial contests in ancient Rome.”
— Michael Mandelbaum